If you had asked Arsenal fans at the start of the season their ambitions for the season, you would almost unanimously have been told a top four finish. The fact that they will be top of the league at Christmas with a cushion of five points over Manchester City is something that was beyond most fans’ wildest dreams.
That is the reality for Arsenal, though, as the World Cup puts a pause on club football. The Gunners sit pretty at the Premier League summit with a very impressive 37 points from 14 games, losing just once this season.
After over a third of the league season complete, most observers have concluded that Arsenal are the real deal this time around. The soft spine that they have been blighted by so regularly over the years appears to have been replaced by a steely determination; the joint-best defensive record in the league evidence of this.
A five-point lead at the top of the league is a nice cushion to have at any stage of the season, but there is still a long way to go – 24 league games in fact. With the unprecedented timing of the World Cup in Qatar, Arsenal must pick up where they have left off seamlessly. The question being: can they sustain a title challenge this season?
Challenges Arsenal face
In another era, Mikel Arteta’s men would be considered favourites to win the league given their current position. However, the fact that they will have to hold of the irrepressible Manchester City – armed with Erling Haaland – means that no one at the Emirates is getting carried away.
City are perhaps the best Premier League side of all time, given the longevity of their brilliance, and under Pep Guardiola they are all too comfortable in navigating a title race. There will not be one player or member of staff in the City camp who is anywhere near a a state of panic at this relatively early stage in the campaign.
The concern for Arsenal will be that the World Cup breaks their momentum and they do not find their groove immediately once club football returns. If that is the case and City find their form at Christmas, then that five point lead could disappear in almost no time at all. City have shown over the last five years that they are fully capable of putting together runs of 15-or-so wins where they just steamroll through seemingly difficult fixtures.
It is quite possible that Arsenal have already displayed their maximum performance levels this season, whereas it feels like Guardiola’s men are yet to really get going. Haaland has been scoring at a frightening rate, but his side still have another couple of gears to push onto and that will be Arteta’s biggest concern.
Arsenal and City have also not faced each other this season yet, with their October fixture postponed. It is quite possible that, if they are to win the league, Arsenal will have to beat City at least once; something they have not managed since 2015 in the league. The postponed fixture has not yet been arranged, but in late April Arsenal face Manchester City away before games against Chelsea and Newcastle United. A run that could very well define their season.
The other factor is the impact that potential injuries may have. Arsenal’s summer recruitment has meant that their squad has greater depth and more quality than before, but they still cannot boast anywhere near the squad of City.
There are certain players in the City squad who, should they be absent, the effects would be felt. Kevin De Bruyne is perhaps the most notable of these. Whilst they would certainly miss these players, the drop off in quality of any replacement is not significant. With Arsenal, it is.
Despite the improved squad depth, it still feels like should Arsenal lose the likes of Thomas Partey, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Jesus then they would really struggle. You could put William Saliba in that category too, although Benjamin White could move in from right back and Takehiro Tomiyasu would then come into the side.
Jesus has been struggling in front of goal, having not scored in his last nine league games. Yet, his contribution to the side is still so great. The Brazilian has revolutionised Arsenal’s attack. His build-up play, off the ball runs, and dribbling ability just some of the elements that make him such an asset to Arteta.
The other factor for Arsenal is the Europa League. As much as they should be a shoe-in for the top four, the competition still represents a route to the Champions League and a European trophy. Manchester City also have European football to contend with, but have the benefit of being able to rotate their side more as they see fit. There is also the fact that Europa League football means games on Thursday nights, whereas City will be playing at least a day earlier.
Reasons for optimism
One of the main positives for Arsenal this season – particularly given Jesus’ dry spell in front of goal – is that they are scoring goals from all over the pitch. In fact, the Gunners have had ten different goalscorers in their 14 league games so far. The fact that there has been no noticeable drop-off in goals with their main striker not firing is testament to their attacking play.
One player who has not been involved much this season is Emile Smith-Rowe. The 22-year-old is a real fan favourite at the club but has seen his role reduced this season due to injury. The academy graduate scored 10 league goals last season and when you add him as an attacking option along with Martin Ødegaard, Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Jesus and Eddie Nketiah, suddenly the squad looks in much better shape.
Another thing that could work in Arsenal’s favour is the fact that the January transfer window opens just days after they return to Premier League football. This gives the club’s board the opportunity to add quality and numbers to the squad in order to aid the title push. Due to the favourable position that the club find themselves in, coupled with the chance of a long overdue league title, this may force the board’s hand and lead to them accelerating their summer transfer plans.
Shakhtar Donetsk’s Mykhaylo Mudryk was a summer target and all the talk is that they will pursue the Ukrainian once more at the turn of the year. The 21-year-old winger would add an exciting, talented option and would be able to soften the burden on Saka and Martinelli, but with a rumoured price tag of £88 million he would not come cheap.
Another piece of business that could very much interest Arsenal is Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans. The Belgium international is out of contract in the summer and will be available for nothing in the summer. Arsenal have desires if improving their midfield options though, and it may be that securing Tielemans for a reduced fee in January sees Arsenal beat the competition to his signature. If it means that they win the title then the small fee will pay for itself a thousand times over in the minds of the Arsenal faithful.
As in any title race, there are countless variables that could influence the title race and there will be many twists and turns yet. Whether Arsenal can stay the distance with a Manchester City side who have trodden this path more regularly than any other in recent years remains to be seen, but the start they have made has given them a very good platform to build on once the World Cup has concluded.
At the beginning of the season a top four finish was the aim for Arsenal. Now with dreams of a first Premier League title in 19 years, it is the absolute bare minimum.